Postcards from a PhD
‘Listening to “difficult albums”: specialist music fans and the popular avant-garde’ was written by Chris Atton and appeared in Popular Music back in October 2012. It’s an examination of the difficult processes of negotiation made by the listener of albums which sit at the intersection between popular music and the avant-garde, through a study of a feature on ‘the extreme pleasure of difficult albums’ which appeared in The Word magazine in 2010. I found it by accident this week while looking for something else and reading it gave me a lot to think about.
I’ve been turning the idea of ‘difficult music’ over in my mind for a few weeks since going to see Ashtray Navigations at the end of August. A few minutes into the first support act, War Lass, I noticed a friend hurriedly gathering his belongings. “I’m leaving”, he mouthed, “I can’t bear this”. I looked around the room. No one else seemed troubled, indeed most stood enraptured as what had initially seemed random and discordant synthesizer noise slowly began to reassemble itself into hypnotic patterns. At the bar afterwards I tried to articulate to him what it was about the experience I had found rewarding, why I felt that he should have stayed. Part of me felt a little affronted that he hadn’t made more of an effort to ‘get into it’, but the more I’ve thought about it since the more I’ve become preoccupied with the idea of our very individual relationships to ‘difficult’ music. Not simply music that we don’t particularly like, or find boring, but music that we find physically uncomfortable to listen to.
My latest encounter with music that I found difficult was Jon Brooks recently reissued Music for Thomas Carnacki. As it crackled to life on my record player I adored it almost instantly, a pleasing mixture of backwards looking electronica and what sounds to me almost like baroque versions of John Carpenter soundtracks. I felt I was on pretty safe ground. This continued until halfway through the second side when, partway through, the 4th track breaks into scratchy distortion. Into the 5th track it becomes woozy and disconcerting, as tape loops conjure diabolic cries and frenzied babbling. I didn’t like it. Despite knowing it was all production tricks and manipulation, I had the feeling in the pit of my stomach one gets as a horror film builds, waiting for the terrible thing to happen. I didn’t feel comfortable listening to it and switched it off. I skip the needle over these tracks now.
The premise of the Word feature that Chris Atton explores in ‘Listening to difficult albums’ is its author Dorian Lynskey’s attempts to confront popularly acknowledged difficult recordings (Trout Mask Replica, Nico’s The Marble Index, the trickier Scott Walker albums, that sort of thing) in an attempt to ‘get them’. He seeks to reap the rewards that we are all seemingly so sure awaits us in these records once we’ve transcended our initial difficulty with them. Atton reminds us of Adorno’s use of ‘flaschenpost’, the message in a bottle thrown into the sea, as a metaphor for avant-garde music. The eternal riddle we strive to solve. So is this the answer with music we find difficult? Is perseverance the key and will this perseverance always be rewarded?
Yesterday evening I reclined on the sofa as my partner read extracts to me from Michael Gove speeches. That is probably the first time that sentence has ever been typed and this is not an activity characteristic of our relationship. However, in the process of preparing a lecture on liberal humanism, he had chosen these particular speeches to illustrate a liberal humanist perspective on the arts. That is, the arts as timeless and their role to present a universal truth and to elevate humanity.
“Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding – intellectually, sensually and emotionally – than, say, the Arctic Monkeys. Yet it takes effort to prise open the door to his world”, suggests Gove in a speech to Cambridge University in 2011, going on to iterate “the greatest pleasures are those which need to be worked at”. A Michael Gove quote in a post about avant-garde music may seem slightly incongruous, but is included to illustrate the pervasive idea that any cultural reward worth having will require work. I find this echoed in Atton’s article where he traces such an argument back to Adorno and his suggestion that a popular music audience listens in “a culturally impoverished manner”.
My reaction to this line of thinking is complex. On the one hand I feel a bristling indignation at the suggestion that anything populist or instinctively enjoyable is inherently lacking in cultural value. Yet I realise, without having thought about it before, that there is a part of me that does buy into the notion that investing time in ‘difficult’ work will be rewarded. This particularly applies to conceptual music, as if my brain makes the automatic assumption that any form of music with a ‘big idea’ behind has inherent value and it will just take my ears time to catch-up. As conductor Michael Tilson Thomas suggests speaking of Steve Reich, “I used to say to Steve, I know when I have truly learned your pieces because they stop hurting”.
But what if it never stops? I am at this point reminded of Billy Corgan’s project from last year where he produced a 8 hour ‘ambient jam’ inspired by the Herman Hesse novel Siddhartha. I watched Corgan’s messy experiment unfold live online. I watched for over 5 hours. It didn’t ever ‘stop hurting’. Just like my past attempts to read Siddhartha myself, as much as I liked the idea I couldn’t make myself like the actuality. In fact, were it not for Daniel Lopatin drunkenly live tweeting the bizarre spectacle, I would definitely not have endured as long as I did. So who’s right on this one, Billy Corgan or me?
If I had listened to Billy Corgan noodling over a LibriVox recording of Siddhartha for the full 8 hours would I have eventually reached an epiphany? Is 8 hours enough, maybe I’d need to listen to it every day for a week? For a month? Or can I just accept that artistic value resides in the idea and move on? Can I do this with Wagner too? As for tracks 4 and 5 on Jon Brooks’ Music for Thomas Carnacki, presumably they were intended to make the listener feel uncomfortable given that the album was written to soundtrack William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki The Ghost Finder stories. Therefore, if I force myself to listen to these tracks repeatedly until they lose their power to disturb me, am I not defeating the object? Amongst all these questions I guess the real one I am attempting to answer is whether one should always push against aural difficulty and discomfort in an attempt to transcend it, or whether sometimes the difficulty and discomfort are the point. As it happens, next weekend I am due to attend an all day event ominously titled ‘Ten Hours of Drone’. This may be as good an opportunity to answer my question as I’ll ever get.